Most of the ancient temples are the works of great art and architecture. While visiting the temples in India most of us miss in the jostling crowds the grandeur of the art behind those images of gods and do not realise the outstanding skills of the craftsmen who have produced such exquisite pieces of art. Though the art of making bronze images was known in many centers in India, unquestionably the bronzes of the Chola and Pallavas of Tamilnadu are well known as the finest form of metal sculptures in the world.
Through the finely proportioned torsos, slim waists and beautifully carved limbs, the craftsmen (sthapathis) endowed the images with such perfect beauty, a simple human form gets transformed into a divine image invoking instant awe and devotion in the beholder. It is well known that the Chola artisans from South India went in large numbers to countries earlier known as Ceylon, Burma, Siam, Cambodia, Java and Sumatra. From Pallavas and Cholas to Viyayanagara kings spanning over several centuries, this art received royal patronage and South India had politically a more peaceful atmosphere allowing the unhindered development of such art traditions. Kalpakkam located not far from Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram, the citadels of Pallava culture provided me an excellent opportunity to see closely how such rich traditions have been passed on from one generation to another and witness the way the man makes gods and goddesses who are in greater demand today than ever before!
The history of the art of making icons is as fascinating as the art itself. The art of making metal images existed for a long time. One of the earliest metal images is from the Indus Valley, the famous small 9 cm tall figure of a danseuse. Though small, it displays beautiful details, ornaments, bangles, etc. and also an excellent sense of proportion. There are also references to metal icons in Vedic literature. Mahabharata mentions of Dhritharashtra embracing metal figure of Bheema and Ramayana mentions of Rama performing Aswamedha yaga with Sita being represented by her figure in gold. This art has been discussed in agamas and puranas and several dhyanashlokas. In Brihad Samhitha believed to be of 6th century, there are four chapters dealing with details of this art. Of the 28 Agamas, dated before 9th century, Karmika, Karane, Suprabeda, Amsuthabede and Vaikanasa deal with iconography. For instance, Vaikanasa Agama deals with the vaishnavite idols while other deals with saivite idols.
The process and guidelines for making of metal images or the rules of iconography or iconometry are contained in many shilpasastras, ancient works in Sanskrit. Noteworthy amongst them are : (i) Manasollasa otherwise known as Abhilasitartha chintamani. Its authorship is attributed to King Bhulokamalla Someswara of the Western Chalukya dynasty of Kalyani, who belongs to 12th century. (ii) Silparatna belongs to the 16th century authored by Srikumara who was in the court of King Devanarayana, ruler of Ambalappuzha (Kerala). (iii) Manasara (The essence of measurement). The period and authorship of this work are not known. 20 chapters in this treatise deal with Lingam, Trimurthi, Sakthi, Jain and Buddhist icons as well as bases, vahanas, etc. for the icons.
Even today sthapathis who belong to the Viswakarma community not only follow the iconometry rules specified in these sastras, but also perform the many rituals associated with the casting of images. From the moment of obtaining the wax for modelling to the grand finale of opening the eyes of the metal idol which marks the commissioning the idol for puja, it is a series of homams or havans that are performed at various stages of the process.
Intelligence, devotion, dedication, aesthetic sense combine in the artisans to produce grand exquisite pieces of art. There are several dhyana slokas that help the artisan to conceive the images. The artist has to be well versed in puranas and agamas. Every god and goddess has got certain unique features. The design of the bends in the form (bhangas), hand poses (hastha mudras), head dress (mouli), postures (asanas), ornaments (abharanas), weapons (ayudhas), vehicles (vahanas), etc. should be according to scriptures. It is sad to note that some of the present day artisans in the name of poetic license produce very comic forms of Lord Vinayaka.
In the next part read about how images are cast using the lost wax method